It didn't even matter that it was the 4th of July. Holidays didn't matter any more. They were just another day in the life, at least ever since Hannah had started working for the county as the night-shift EMS dispatcher.
She sighed. But holidays did matter to her kids. All three girls were mad that she wasn't going to be home tonight to watch fireworks with them. Deanna, the youngest, had locked herself in the bathroom screaming bloody murder for about ten minutes. Her daddy was always exhausted after his 12-hour shift at the hospital; Deanna was probably right that he wouldn't take them over to the Brookshire's parking lot to see the fireworks.
But solving Deanna's temper tantrum meant Hannah hadn't had time to dry her hair. With the heat and humidity, her damp hair would soon look like Stevie Wonder ran over a Diana Ross wig sideways with a tractor trailer. She pulled her hair through a purple elastic scrunchie and shrugged in the mirror.
It's not like anyone would really see her, anyway.
Heading towards the front door, she smacked her forehead. "I can't believe I almost forgot!" she mumbled to herself as she strode towards the kitchen. Deftly sliding the pre-packaged 'family size' frozen lasagna into the oven, she turned the dial to 375. Bill's shift ended in 30 minutes and at least there'd be dinner waiting.
"Girls! I'm leaving! Daddy will be home soon... don't let anyone in the house, okay?"
The station always smelled like fresh bleach and old coffee. The Camp County Sheriff's Department could never be accused of a lack of cleanliness. Or of a lack of vigilance; caffeine seemed to emanate from the walls. The same cleaning crew that cleaned the county hospital had been contracted to take care of all of the county's properties. With its fluorescent lighting, tan floor tiles, and nondescript taupe paint, the CCSD station looked a lot like the hospital, too.
"Hey Bubba! Sorry I'm late!" Hannah chirped as she put her purse in the locker along the wall. Bubba turned slowly on the swivel chair away from a row of screens. At 6 foot 7 inches and 388 pounds, Bubba was a mountain of a black man; it was a wonder the old chair hadn't spontaneously collapsed any time in the last 8 years.
It was only rated to 250 pounds.
"Howdy there Miss Hannah! You ain't but five minutes late." Bubba's deep rumbling honey voice was punctuated with a shrug and a smile. Taking off his headset, he stood up slowly, favoring his left knee as always. Bubba had been projected to be a fourth-round pick in the 2002 NFL draft, that is, until he tore his ACL six ways to Sunday in the Cotton Bowl. It was little comfort to Bubba's momma that his beloved Sooners had gone on to win the game.
Hannah slid into the still-warm seat Bubba had vacated. Surreptitiously, she wiped off the headset with the front of her shirt before placing it on her own head.
Usually, the late hours of holidays and weekends meant the 911 line was lit up like Hannah's crusty Uncle Joe when he made a batch of his apple pie moonshine. But tonight, it was oddly quiet. Hannah didn't try to overthink things too much. Hopefully, everyone would just be watching the fireworks and go home without a fuss.
It'd taken her about a year to get used to the bitter taste of the station's cheap, straight black coffee. But she preferred it over coffee with all those little white clumps of powdered creamer that never dissolved right and tasted awful if you got a big chunk. Especially after she'd checked the expiration date on the box of those dried creamer packets one night: February 2007. Even after Armageddon, she doubted she'd be hungry enough to eat anything that had been expired that long.
About three hours into her shift, Bill had texted that the girls had enjoyed the fireworks show and they were all in bed. She sighed while texting him back a red heart emoji. He was a good man, and even though money was tight, she knew she was lucky. She made a mental note to tell him as much the next time she saw him.
Which would probably be Thursday.
After catching up on her Facebook feed, she switched over to Toy Blast on her phone. Popping those colorful cubes was boring as hell, but it passed the time just fine. She leveled up again and was about to click on her bonus when there was an enormous BOOM! that shook the whole building.
Within 30 seconds, every incoming line was lit up.
Whatever it was, Hannah had managed to localize it to over by the southeast side of the lake, off County Road 2121. That side of the lake is where most of the calls had originated. Maybe a pipeline had burst or something. Or maybe some dumbass had just set off a whole bunch of illegal fireworks.
All the callers had talked about a big flash of white light immediately followed by that booming noise she'd heard. Several of them had complained of broken windows. There was a cacophony of car alarms in the background of every call.
Sheriff Beasely pulled the Dodge Charger off of County Road 2121 when he saw where the fire truck had parked. With some 78 thousand miles on it, Beasely knew it was about time the county would replace the Charger, but dammit he liked this unit. It was sportier than his old Crown Vic and he'd just about gotten the seat foam perfect to hug his ass.
One of the firefighters milling around pointed across the road towards a graying double-wide trailer with a metal carport semi-attached off on the left. Firefighters were always the first responders, but they never went in first. He acknowledged the man with a curt nod as he passed.
Even in the moonlight, the front yard looked surprisingly well kept, but as Beasely pulled into the long gravel driveway, past four other cars, he could see some half a dozen plastic lawn chairs upended in the dirt of the side yard. The blue hazy light of a bug zapper hanging off one of the eaves further illuminated some children's toys scattered on the ground next to a dark-looking plastic tarp covering, what, dirt? tools? trash?
That's more like it, he thought.
He recalled Miss Bailey talking about selling this property to some out-of-towners a while back. Miss Bailey's real estate office was right next to the diner in town. He'd be hard pressed to say whether she spent more time in her office or at Sandy's diner. Sandy's wife had died of breast cancer three years ago, and it was no secret Miss Bailey thought it was high time he remarried.
He popped the car in park and opened the door. Clicking its on/off button, he raised his black Maglite; there were no lights on inside and all the windows in the double-wide were broken.
But there was no glass anywhere on the ground outside.
The steel door next to the carport was slightly ajar, and Beasely drew his Sig Sauer P226 from its black holster before pushing the door fully open. Shining his flashlight into the darkness inside, he called out forcefully, "Police! Anyone home?" When no one responded, he said, "I'm coming in!" and stepped up over the threshold.
Pitch black, save for the bright beam of the Maglite, Beasely blinked rapidly to try to acclimate and increase his visual acuity. As he took another step inside, his right foot skidded and he lost his balance, falling to one knee. He'd used his left hand to brace himself and the Maglite rolled away about three feet.
The floor was soaking wet.
His left knee now on fire from the impact, Beasely stood slowly. His hand was dripping from contact with the floor. He wiped his hand on his pants, took one careful step, and reached down for the Maglite. The liquid covering the floor appeared to be a shiny black. But he recognized the unique and vaguely metallic smell immediately; when he aimed the flashlight downwards, he could see the floor was covered in a slick, deep red.
And it was everywhere. The floors were covered in the thick liquid. As were the counter tops and drawers in the kitchen. The walls appeared to be actively dripping. Feeling his way along the wall, he found a light switch and flipped it, illuminating a sea of crimson covering every surface. Including the gypsum ceiling panels.
Christ Almighty! What happened here?
The double-wide was laid out like a horizontal shotgun house, every room just past the next and all sharing a hallway, as is common in that type of housing. He knew it well. Beasely made his way past the kitchen through the living room, which also served as the entry way for the front door. As he passed, he flipped another light switch.
Each of the four windows on either side of the living room were missing their glass, the sultry night air entering at will. The heat intensified the sanguine smell. He expected to see thousands of tiny shards of glass laying across the floor, semi-disguised by their bloody liquid envelopes.
There were none.
In fact, there was no glass anywhere inside. Leaning his head out of one of the windows, he used his Maglite to confirm that there wasn't any broken glass outside on the lawn, either. It was as if it had simply disappeared into thin air.
Realizing he should have used his radio well before entering the property, he pressed the button on his shoulder microphone, "Unit 12 requesting all available backup. Code 3. All available backup!" He barely registered Hannah's clipped and tinny response, "10-4 Unit 12." He'd planned to go back outside to wait for the other units, but that's when he saw it.
Hamburger meat. Raw hamburger meat. And it was all over the floor and walls of the living room on the far side.
It wasn't hamburger meat. As he got closer, he could see it wasn't edible in that way. His stomach lurched.
Chunks of human flesh. Small chunks of muscle, sinew, and bone seemingly ground into a pulverized mess. It was in clumps on the floor, the walls, the ceiling. The last time he saw anything like this was in Baqubah, 2004. He clenched his jaw to steady the now-familiar dizzy feeling. This scene looked exactly like a suicide bombing.
Except with more blood. And no damage to the furniture.
The first bedroom was empty, save for more blood and fragmented bodies. He'd seen a couple of stumps of fingers mixed in here and there and was now certain these were human remains. The adjacent bathroom was in similar condition, as was the second bedroom.
Whatever had happened here had killed everyone inside. And it seemed like there had been a lot of them. With four cars as silent witnesses outside, it could be as many as twenty people or more. But they were all dead now.
Shit, is there even enough left of these people to identify them by DNA?
The only sound he made as he moved was the light slapping of his boots moving through the sticky, viscous red coating. Therefore, he was justifiably startled when he flicked on the light in the bedroom at the far end of the hall and saw her sitting quietly in a chair in the corner of the room.
"Holy shit, lady!" Beasely immediately regretted the accidental outburst. But no amount of training, military or otherwise, really ever prepares you for something like this.
She was stunning.
Probably the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, a cross between maybe the younger versions of Jessica Alba and Mila Kunis. Or maybe somebody else even hotter. No names came to mind, though.
Long, wavy dark brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders to her elbows. Large, doe-shaped brown eyes framed by long, soft lashes. Pouty and full pink lips. She wasn't wearing any makeup. Holy shit for real. That was all natural.
Her porcelain breasts, firm and round and noticeably larger than a palm-full sat majestically within the tight boundaries of her white scoop-necked dress. Hands crossed placidly in her lap only accentuated her narrow waist. She couldn't have been much past 25, though she seemed somehow much younger.
No doubt he wanted to fuck her. He made a split second decision that he would fuck her, once he got her out of this hell hole.
"Are you okay, sweetheart?" he asked huskily, and then cleared his throat. At least pretend to be professional, idiot. Although there wasn't much professional about a house covered in blood and human remains.
And her. She wasn't professional at all. She palpably radiated an intense virginal sexuality more compelling than any woman he'd ever met.
With her spotlessly white curve-hugging dress. He paused. Spotlessly. White. Glanced down at his uniform. He hadn't been in this place more than five minutes and he could see patches of ominous, wet, dark stains all over his polyester pants.
When she didn't respond, he moved his head to establish eye contact with her. "I said, are you okay?"
He saw her blink. Serenely, like he imagined a storybook princess would do.
"O-kay." She drew out the two syllables slightly as she exhaled; her voice was musical and pleasant, yet oddly hollow. The fine hairs on his arm raised without him consciously noticing. She had never shifted her position, remaining still and motionless, like an over sized doll.
"What happened here?" he asked her softly; he didn't want to startle her into a panic. Or worse. He'd seen PTSD before in some of the guys he'd served with and knew how quickly that particular switch could flip.
She responded with a partial shrug of her small shoulders. "I followed the recipe," she said simply.
"The recipe?" he repeated, unsure if he'd heard her quiet response correctly.
"Yes. The recipe for potato salad. That's what I was assigned. Mama brought two of her special pecan pies, Grams made a whole bunch of Waldorf salad with the marshmallows, even though Pappy hates marshmallows, Aunt Jeanette brought a ham, Steffie brought Tuna Scroodle, Cousin David brought queso and chips, and Daddy grilled all the hamburgers and hot dogs," she paused, "but that's not really cooking." she concluded thoughtfully.
It didn't escape his notice how she'd delivered the majority of that unexpected flood of words so flatly. Whatever she'd seen, it was enough to break anyone. He tried not to think of the mandatory debriefing and counseling he'd have to attend after being the first on scene here.
Attempting a disarming smile as he edged slightly closer to her, he adopted a friendly tone, "And how did your potato salad come out?"
He couldn't quite place the split second emotion that flashed across her face and disappeared without a trace. But from where he stood across the room, it had looked like... rage.
"I followed the recipe exactly," she said calmly. "I followed it exactly and I thought I did good, but Cousin Jeffy said it tasted like sh--" she broke off abruptly, took a breath and continued, "... tasted bad. He said it tasted bad. But it didn't!" Her eyes were pleading with him. For what, he wasn't sure.
"Jeffy said it was bad and that I was too dumb to follow the recipe, and Grams agreed with him. Grams said I was a bad cook and dumb, too." She wasn't crying. Yet. "And then Mama said that it didn't matter because no amount of smarts or cooking was gonna make a man want me with all this flab everywhere." She delivered this last bit matter-of-factly. Still no tears.
He blinked once to make sure he was seeing things correctly. No way this woman was even a hundred pounds soaking wet.
"Your mama said you were fat?" he asked with no small amount of incredulity.
"And ugly. Even Daddy says I'm ugly. Real ugly." He saw the thought form behind her eyes before it passed her lips. "Said I was ugly." Now she looked smug. Sat up a bit straighter. The look in her eyes was now challenging.
He took a small, but calculated step backward.
"Let me see if I've got this right, ma'am. Your family came over for fourth of July, and you made some potato salad, and basically your whole family ganged up on you and called you dumb, fat, and ugly?" The repetition technique had been hammered home time and again at the academy. It was useful for a variety of reasons, including verifying a witness's memory... or catching a perpetrator in a lie.
"Yes," she delivered with flat affect. "I told you that already. But that's not the only time they said that. They been saying it my whole life." she looked suddenly downcast. "All my life, I've never been good enough. Nothing I ever done was good. And because I'm so ugly, I'll never find a man. There's only so much of that one person can take," she finished plaintively.
As she finished speaking, the sound of approaching sirens punctuated the eerie stillness of the air which filled the room to capacity in between the ebbs of their conversation. He counted at least three, maybe four units. At the rate they were closing, they'd be here soon.
The knowledge did not ameliorate the heavy pit of dread that had coalesced in the center of his chest.
"Unit 12, location?" Jack's deep voice came through the mic.
"Bedroom, far right," Although there was no reason to whisper, Beasely pitched his voice low anyway, almost as if not to disturb the unnatural hush permeating the double-wide.
He was watching her carefully now. Nothing else existed for him; even the bedroom walls had receded past the point where he could focus on them. There was only him. And her.
"So, how did you do it?" he asked slowly. Deliberately. Pausing between each word. Belatedly, he realized he probably should have read her Miranda rights the minute he'd laid eyes on her. It hardly mattered at this point.
From what seemed like a great distance, he faintly heard one of the exterior doors swing open and the heavy thudding footsteps of several men. His backup.
Appearing to disregard the imminent approach of the new intruders, she swiveled her head gracefully, surveying the blood-stained bedroom. A new, previously-unseen glint appeared in her eyes.
"What? This?" she gave him a mischievous and conspiratorial smile as she gestured dismissively towards the far end of the double-wide with one outstretched hand. The abrupt change in mood animated her face strangely.
He nodded. "How?"
She grinned girlishly. "Wanna see?"
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